Review of Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History

One section of Master’s Thesis research included legal analysis with politically chilling effects upon anti-lynching and leftist movements in The United States of America from Harper’s Ferry to the late 1960’s. The way in which the law laid force upon the bodies that broke with expected behavior and the means by which police facilitated “corrective” behavior for these violations differs drastically. And dialectically. To suppress suppress either labor, racial and leftist political struggles is to repress the three progressive aspects of society that have been driving emancipatory ideas and practiced encased in institutions. Because of this, of course I read Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History by Rebecca N. Hill.

Hill’s history has a pleasantly journalistic feel to it. The main characters are of course detailed – the defendant – whomever she’s describing in that section – and the plaintiff – the State in the place that they were arrested – are both described and all their relationships therein. Who were those involved with the crime, what brought them to where they were right before they just were arrested, arraigned, transported, processed, jailed, for days, jailed, for months, jailed, for years, then brought to court, etc.etc.

It combines this description of their time and those around them with legal exegesis of the components of the case. This combined with local socio-political factors involved in such cases, such as the manner in which popular movements sought to impress their influence upon the courts, had a number of legal implications on social movements involved with race, class and/or labor struggles. While Sacco and Vanzetti are name dropped in the highly underrated, very funny movie War On Everyone with Alexander Skarsgård and Michael Pena. Anyway…

 

The book is organized around several dramatic cases, starting with John Brown’s trial. From this heavily police involved form of repressive behavior the the narrative goes to where the law played a less involved roll. Lynching throughout the south in the United States was a true horror that kills thousands of African Americans. Police slowed their roll on the road towards justice and would often falsify or forge documentary information, not intervene while militant bigots exercised their force upon them and, well, all around oppressed them.

Racial, Labor and Leftist social justice warriors – a term that ought be associated with esteem – sought to impress their demands that the state more justly apply it’s purported universalism, an inherently conservative position. The other says the state is unjust and wants to replace it along democratic, centralist lines rather than plutocratic ones – the preconditions for the most active ire. Labor wants the state to join its side in demanding more benefits but are not connected to the Leftists either because of lack of class conscious or lack of practical use value in linkage, a serious consideration to make considering the effect that associating with Reds could have on your work life.

While John Brown clearly engaged in the behavior he was charged with, the obverse is true of the Haymarket Martyrs. Their case spawned a holiday celebrated nearly everywhere in the world except the USA – May Day. If you’re not familiar with the case, you should look it up. What I found interesting as though Hill does not spend much time on the material evidence, of which there is none, and instead writes about the majority-immigrant leftist responses. Of course every people has a culture, but that of Chicago – the Second City, was unlike many others due to the habitus brought over from the German revolutionaries. Gymnastic, parading, militant Anarchist culture practiced by Germans and a number of other stocks from across the shore shocked the sensibilities of the local bourgeoisie.

After an incident that was, essentially, the pretext for the public execution of the Opposition Leadership Anarchist newspapers fought not just to save members but leaders. Newspapers which shared workers stories about their conditions, pay, bosses and other things now started to include writing from those inside. Rather than becoming devotional, religious character associated with sublimity their writings subverted the abolitionist martyrs sharing stories and expressions of romantic, sexual love. Anarchist newspapers published the love letters of the Chicago anarchists and their wives and girlfriends, another practice that was taken up by most socialist defense campaigns.

Hill’s history ends with the equally tragic tale of the Black Panther’s Party. With an emphasis on the Party’s organized defense apparatus raised to support George Jackson, Hill shows a man imprisoned due to political caprice rather than justice. Like The Haymarket Martyrs and Sacco and Vanzetti, his writings behind bars and public adoration of Assata were used as gristle to further help people find sympathy in their story. Having recently read their published letters and accounts – I get it!

All these and more arrests and trials forms responses with historically dependent forms of action. Organizations along class and/or racial/ethnic alliances were highly limited by place, history and the interests and powers of the state and local elite. In some cases the popular struggles were able to save the subject of their organization. Other’s no.

Hill’s history shows radicals creating interconnected networks of protest and resistance activity as well as volunteering time and donating money for massive fundraising undertakings that spanned the globe. Success in obtaining government guaranteed rights often depended on how loud and disruptive supporters could be to the normal functioning of government.

Mixed in is to this journalistic, documentary history are comments pulling together some of the themes evident in today’s world:

“Once admired as the heritage of manly individual freedom, Puritanism in the 1920s became associated with the Ku Klux Klan, along with fundamentalism, racism, capitalism, and prohibition.”

The heritage of many organizations racism persist in various ways. And yet to point this out is to become a public persona non grata. Example K:

Example on the opposite side? Trump the tee-totaller and Sacrosanct “States Rights” Sessions just did a 180 on over over a decade of federal drug enforcement policy.

These broader points build and intersperse Rebecca Hill’s account. Along with the legal proceedings, are a few interesting asides as well – such as The Red and the Black being George Jackson’s favorite novel.

Her conclusion does not lay out a platform upon which a group might be able to exercise their collective social power in order to achieve this, nor should she have to. The conditions by which that they would need to be changed would always depend upon the locals activities. What she does, however, is provide a powerful ethical imperative:

“The capacity to imagine a different world might begin with the ability to refuse to accept the characterizations of people who were willing to recklessly go against the rules of the society in which they live as wicked, misguided, wrong, foolish, or criminal. It is much harder to see the face of the “handsome sailor” on an imperfect human than it is to accept the underlying message of the modern-day nation-state that the only real heroes are the cops and soldiers who protect “us” from the rest of the world”

Review of October: The Story of the Russian Revolution

 

Based on a number of recommendations and awareness of his political bent, for quite some time I’ve been intending to read the science fiction writings of China Midvale. I’d yet, however, to get around to doing so when I saw that Verso Press was holding a contest to promote his new book  October: The Story of the Russian Revolution. I submitted an entry and sure enough was one of the lucky winners of a free signed copy of this work of non-fiction.

Excepting events in America, the buildup to and aftermath of the Russian Revolution is probably my most read about world historical event. I’ve read books solely on the subject written by those that were present, such as John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World or Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution as well as essays by Emma Goldman and Victor Serge and, of course, Lenin’s Essential Works. I’ve read a few left and right wing histories published after the 1990s as well. I share this to establish if not a specialization of knowledge on the issue, than at least an above average familiarity with the events one would expect on such a subject. Anyway, to the book…

As a whole October is a very different creature from most of the texts that I mentioned above. This, however, is not necessarily bad. Trotsky’s writing on this period is simply magisterial and Reed’s journalistic descriptions of the sundry meetings unrest are at times nail-biting. These men had clear agendas that were intimately tied to the events that they were describing. Mieville, it seems to me, is writing this as a means of popularizing knowledge about the events in Russia and trying to do so at a distance. Because of this, as well as what I believe is a desire to avoid getting caught up in the debates of that time through extended focus on particular persons/issues it lacks some of the same passion. And yet no matter what side of the political spectrum one is on, I feel that this could be appealing to even those that aren’t Reds. I expected some sort of propagandistic asides peppered throughout the book prior to reading it, but none were there.

I could see myself assigning this book for a history class as not only does he do such an even handed job, but also as there is a glossary of terms in the back that would assist those not versed with the terms of the revolution. After a very brief historical context, Mieville begins the Story of the Russian Revolution in February, following the first revolution. It closes eight months later, in October.

Instead of highlighting an identified-with hero (Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin,etc.), Mieville focuses on the sufferings of the soldiers being ground up by the Kaiser’s troops, the unrest of the peasants, the plight of the industrial workers in St. Petersburg and Moscow, the incompetence of the Kerensky government, the rifts between the socialist parties and within the armed services. In this Mieville does a great job and consistently uses the words of those he’s writing about. As a means for creating tension, however, this is not a great technique. Since the only real character development is that of the people of the city that once paid little heed to the Bolsheviks to then viewing them as representative of their political will – I found this somewhat disappointing as well. Not that the anecdotes aren’t fascinating or the style of writing isn’t good, however my familiarity with it all made me hope for something that this wasn’t. As such I’d say that this was more for those that were unfamiliar with the topic.